At Large

Penang postcards

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Main organizers of the five-day Consolidation for Peace for Mindanao (COP5) were a Malaysian-Filipino husband-and-wife team: Dr. Kamarulzaman Askandar, who heads the Research and Education for Peace, Universiti Sains Malaysia (REPUSM), and Ayesah Abubakar, of the Mindanao Peace Program of REPUSM and of the Southeast Asian Conflict Studies Network (SEACSN).

“Sam,” as Dr. Askandar is addressed by friends, has long focused on conflict resolution in the various armed conflicts in Southeast Asia. He currently wears his hair down to his shoulders, and he confessed on the first day of COP5 that he has vowed to keep his hair long “until the peace negotiations in Mindanao are finished and an agreement is reached.” This provoked OPAPP Secretary Ging Quintos Deles to comment that “I hope the negotiations are finished soon so that Sam will not have to wear his hair down to his waist.”

Ayesah was born in Kidapawan but spent much of her life in Davao, straddling the worlds of her Muslim upbringing and her professional life. She and Sam met in the course of their work treading the minefields of peace-building in Mindanao, and they now have a young daughter who will not inherit, it is hoped, the legacy of war, displacement and distrust that her parents have spent their lives working to end.

Also coordinating COP5 was Sachiko Ishikawa, senior advisor of the Peace Building Program of the Japan International Cooperation Agency (Jica) which has been providing grants for development projects like roads, bridges, water systems, classrooms and even shelter that the Japanese government considers an integral part of the peace-building effort. It was Sachiko who expressed on the first day of the COP5 that the “groundbreaking” gathering of most sectors involved in the Mindanao situation was the organizers’ way of encouraging “out-of-the-box” thinking to find new solutions to age-old problems.

Assisting the main facilitators were students and staff, some of them Filipino, of REPUSM. They were truly a marvel, promptly responding to whatever request, question or difficulty the participants presented. Given the size of the group, and our diverse needs and interests, it was a wonder they were able to keep us to the schedule and herd everyone to the different venues without losing any stray sheep along the way.

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Some speakers had a “good news-bad news” approach to their presentations.

Speaking on “Trends and Challenges in Global Peacemaking: Opportunities for Mindanao,” Kristian Herbolzheimer, representing Conciliation Resources, one of four international NGOs sitting on the International Contact Group, declared that all over the world, armed conflicts have gone down in number (from 53 in 1992 to 12 in 2010), with a similar downtrend in the number of casualties. Herbolzheimer likewise observed the “normalization” of negotiated solutions, remarking that even the United States is now negotiating with the Taliban.

But together with these are “negative trends,” such as the increase in conflict recurrence, that is, a return to war after the ostensible cessation of hostilities. He also noted the “blurring (of lines) between political and non-political violence, the increase in non-state conflicts (such as the drug war in Mexico), and the stagnation in the decline in conflicts since 2003.

If there is a “peace dividend,” then there are certainly losses due to war. Abhoud Syed M. Lingga, a member of the MILF peace panel, noted in his presentation that “no low-income fragile or conflict-affected country has yet achieved a single Millennium Development Goal.” Citing the World Development Report 2011, Lingga added that “people (especially children) who live in countries affected by violence are twice as likely to be undernourished and 50 percent are more likely to be impoverished,” while children are “three times as likely to be out of school.”

The good news, said Lingga, is that both President Aquino and MILF Chair Murad Ebrahim, in their talks, “agreed to fast-track the negotiations” and that the discussions now focus on “substantial issues,” while the Malaysian facilitator of the peace talks has resorted to “creative ways” to keep both panels talking.

* * *

Philippine Ambassador to Malaysia J. Eduardo Malaya has some surprising data to share about Philippine-Malaysia relations.

True, Malaysia is the Philippines’ 11th major tourist market, with 80,000 Malaysian tourists visiting the Philippines in 2010. But even more Filipinos visited Malaysia that year, with 486,790 Filipino tourists.

And while Malaysian investments in the Philippines reached over $203 million over the last six years, in 2011, San Miguel Corp. bought Exxon Mobil Corp.’s 65 percent stake in Esso Malaysia Berhad for $610 million, “easily tripling in a single transaction the entire Malaysian investments in the Philippines for the last six years,” notes Malaya.

In 2010, Malaysian exports to the Philippines (mainly petroleum and petroleum products) were double that of Philippine exports to Malaysia (semiconductor devices, electric or electronic machinery). But the gap is slowly being bridged, with major Malaysian investors like Resorts World Hotel (and casino operations) thinking of expanding their investments in the country.

Despite the laid-back, easygoing nature of most Malaysians, especially in Penang, it is difficult to forget that one is in a Muslim country. The absence of pork dishes is telling, even in a five-star resort like the Shangri-la Golden Sands. And the folk dancers who entertained us during the welcome dinner were well-covered and moved with stately grace but hardly any wiggle. Otherwise, their smiles and open faces should dispel any notions about how “repressive” life under the Bangsa Moro would be.

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